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1 August, 2011  ▪  Спілкувалася: Olena Chekan

In the East European Triangle

Prominent French academic Daniel Beauvois talks about quasi-patriotism, national heroes, distorted myths and the status of historical science in Ukraine

Mr. Beauvois describes his nearly three-decade long work in the archives of France, Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and Russia as the collecting of rocks on the Moon. His tough and unbiased research of Ukrainian, Polish and Russian relations have shaped an innovative vision of Ukrainian history, yet provoked a conflict between himself and the advocates of various national perspectives, especially the pro-Russian one. However, this does not bother the professor all that much. He continues to research and analyze the social, economic and cultural process of our past. 

UW: You once mentioned that Ukraine has found itself in a situation similar to the one existing in Italy during the Garibaldi era. “We have created a state, now we need to create a nation,” he said. How, and on what basis is a nation created?

All nations have their own course and priorities. Each was established in a unique way. There is no single recipe for all. I think mentality is the key thing here. If enough people have the will and the intent to create a nation, it will emerge. This common will and the awakening of national identity cannot be imposed or imported from outside. I believe Ukraine already has national self-consciousness, actually, it has had it for quite some time, and has already demonstrating it on many occasions in the past. The concept even lived among the people of Soviet Ukraine, in both official and unofficial institutions.  


On the Course to Self-determination 

UW: What, in your view, does it mean to be part of a nation – to be French or Ukrainian? 

It’s a combination of everything: the French language, history, everyday lifestyle, cuisine and culture, which is renowned and arguably one of the most important in the world. That’s why it’s easy for us. We rarely think about what it takes to be French. It’s a given to us, like the air we breathe.

As for the self-determination of Ukrainians, that is probably more complex. But I think it makes little sense to take pains looking for an answer to what it means to be Ukrainian or to get obsessed with the idea. There is this nation and the very fact of its existence consolidates Ukraine. Let’s not forget, all of right-bank Ukraine had been Poland until the late 18th century with polonization in full swing. As a result, the greatest Ukrainian families, such as the Sanhushkos, Chartoryiskys and others, became totally Polish, forgot their own roots and began to brutally exploit the peasants who were their compatriots. Add to this the pressure from the Catholic Church and the Greek Catholic Church. In the meantime, left-bank Ukraine was ruthlessly russified. By the early 20th century, the multimillion powerless mass of Ukrainian peasants found itself between a rock and a hard place - Polish and Russian land owners. These were all terrible, tragic pages in Ukrainian history. Yet in spite of everything, the Ukrainian nation was able to preserve its language, mentality and uniqueness, proving its extreme viability.

UW: Still, the educated West stubbornly ignores the existence of Ukraine. Why is that?

It makes me so sad that my compatriots, of course not all, but most of them don’t notice Ukraine. The French have accepted Russia’s perspective as the only possibility to understand history and present time Eastern Europe. This is how its been since the time of the Russian Empire and later, the Soviet Union. There are still French people, who believe that Ukraine is Russia or a Russian province. I repeat as often as I can that this is not the case. In addition, leading countries are not interested in spoiling their relations with the unpredictable Russian Federation which is one of their key suppliers of raw materials. Some time probably has to pass before Europe, which is busy with problems of its own, duly appreciates and accepts Ukraine as a European country.

UW: Okay, we have understood the position of the West. What should we do about Russia, where Ukraine’s desire to shape its own national identity brings out such fury?

In my opinion, the situation is not as tragic as you make it sound. Look, my book has just been published in Russia. To tell you the truth, I could never have expected that I would see my books in Russian. Still, there was a group of people who thought it made sense to publish my historical research of this complex Gordian knot into which the fates of Poland, Ukraine and Russia have braided themselves. And, let’s say, this research does not really favour Russia all that much. But I get letters from there congratulating me and supporting my conclusions, thus proving that not all Russia is hostile towards all things Ukrainian. I think that the mentality there is changing slowly.

You know, France used to have colonies too, and many people could not imagine it without Algeria and Morocco. They had French departments and administration. The French lived and were born there. But the colonies fought and finally achieved what they wanted – they kicked us out. Today, most of my compatriots see them as separate sovereign states. In other words, the historic ties we used to have with them, transformed into something different. Of course, we remember that we even fought one another - this is a historical fact. But now we have normal, respectful and even friendly relations. I hope this will continue. There were also terrible wars between France and Germany, but we are now partners in both the EU and NATO.


A Myth as a Distortion of the Past 

UW: Way back in 1986, you organized a conference in France, dedicated to the historical and literary myths of Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania. What role do myths play in history? 

Collective memory often presents the past as a knot of distorted myths. They are safe as long as people realize they recognize them as such and do not take them as reality and do not replace reality with them. Separating reality from myth is extremely important. France has plenty of them including Jeanne d'Arc and later revolutions that can have different interpretations, also Charles de Gaulle, and even François Mitterrand. These myths are innocent as long as they don’t get in the way of common sense. In my books, I fight against myths and the distortion of multifaceted history. These are images for naïve, not very smart people.  

It is necessary for true scientific history to make it all the way down to textbooks so that every student who is still in school and especially at university, has different versions of it, not just one. I believe that there is no uniform history, no uniform perspective.

Textbooks should present historical facts from various perspectives, allowing young people to think and shape within themselves the mentality of real citizens of their country. Sadly, though, both schools and universities often teach myths or versions of history, twisted in favour of various political situations. They cannot stand up to any academic criticism or an objective expert analysis. This runs counter to the calling of these institutions - to send people out into the world, that are truly capable of thinking.

UW: What can you say about Ukrainian myths and their impact on reality?

Myths often create fake patriots. Take the Cossacks, for example. This is a concept from the 17th century that has now outlived its usefulness. Ukrainians can and should be proud of this part of their history. But it makes absolutely no sense to bring it into modern life. It can only exist as folklore, theater or the re-enactment of historical battles which is so popular these days. It’s fun for celebrations. We also have our knights and kings at various celebrations but they cannot survive in the modern world. Knowing and respecting one’s history is one thing. Using is as a tool of quasi-patriotism is something different altogether.

There is another range of aspects of the existence of myths in real life. For instance, there are two opposite views regarding Ivan Mazepa. He is a hero for Ukrainians and a traitor for Russians. There is nothing terrible about this and these two myths don’t need to be coordinated with each other. Let each nation have its own myth. The main thing is to not impose it on the neighbour. It’s no good when Russian mythology begins to dominate in Ukraine. As a Frenchman, I can’t anyone any advice, but I think it’s your right to decide whom to consider a hero and whom not to, even if the Russians are outraged by the Hero of Ukraine title granted to Stepan Bandera, one of the leaders of insurgent movements in Ukraine, or the project for the construction of a monument to Ivan Mazepa in Poltava. It is at times like this that political ethics should come into play, in addition to the wit and intuition of some politicians and their ability to consider all pros and cons. When we erect a monument to Napoleon, the UK, to put it mildly, reacts with irony. Personally I think that without doubt, Ivan Mazepa is your hero. So, why not have a monument for him?

Now, with your permission, let’s move on to soviet myths. People raised under the government of that time, continue to live with the images that were entrenched in their consciousness and do not want to know anything different or think independently. They repeat soviet myths and hold on to the past. They probably continue to believe that Stalin never wanted to destroy the Ukrainian nation. The level of the knowledge of history in all post-soviet countries is very low. This is not really critical for established democracies, but extremely bad for a young country that Ukraine is, because it can lead to a split in society. I would say that Ukrainians have an extremely poor knowledge of history.


The Passion and the Many Vectors of History 

UW: Is it because of Rene Martel who used to write about the Ukrainian language of the 17th century and relations between Ukraine and Poland back in the 1930s, that you became interested in Ukraine?

Not him alone, although Rene Martel worked at the University of Lille where I taught later. My PhD thesis focused on the Vilnius University that supported nearly 20 large Polish schools in right-bank Ukraine until 1813 when the November Uprising was crushed. As I researched these educational issues I noticed a huge difference in mentality between Ukraine and historical Lithuania, i.e. Lithuania and Belarus. It was then, in the late 1970s, that I became interested in Ukraine and began to research relations between land owners and peasants in Ukraine after my thesis was published.

UW: Are history and morals consistent with one another?

Historians often believe history should underpin some political purposes. This is nonsense. History must be based on facts alone, come from archives and should present these facts – I repeat and insist – from different perspectives to make the world look colourful, not black and white. Black and white history is the history of myths, which is very dangerous. History should force people to think; it should create new personalities. That’s the key objective. History is a very passionate thing and at the same time, tragic. For me, William Shakespeare is the greatest historian. He has it all – laughter, and tears, and honor and treason. All human history and all human reactions.

UW: Can one learn to not fall into the same trap twice, by learning from one’s own history?

It’s extremely difficult, almost impossible, given everything we see around us every day. Still, I want to believe that some part of what a historian writes reaches people. It’s all about upbringing and education, and that is the job of teachers and publishers. The fruit brought by historians should appear on the plate of every person so that he or she can become a citizen.

UW: How do you see the current status of historical science in Ukraine?

I think historical science in Ukraine has changed significantly of late. A new generation has arrived, which travels a lot, communicates with academics from all corners of the world, has access to archives, is able to think and is more independent. International conferences and symposiums deeply affect the views of every historian because Ukrainians can now work at international research centres. They can now hear the ideas of historians from the diaspora on Ukrainian history. Different schools and views complement and enrich one another. But it’s true that unfortunately, I have noticed that young Ukrainians often repeat waht has already been told. This is unacceptable in science. I want to believe this is a rarity.



Daniel Beauvoisis a French historian focusing on Slavic history, expert in Ukrainian and Polish history, writer and translator

1938 – born in Annezin-les-Béthune, Northern France

Studies Slavic studies at the University of Lille and the Sorbonne.   

1977  - defends his PhD thesis on the Vilnius school district in 1803-1832

1969–1972 – Director of Warsaw University’s French Center

1973–1978  - History Researcher at the National Center for Academic Research, Paris

1978–1979 – Professor at Nancy University  

1979–1993 – Professor at Charles de Gaulle University, Lille

Since 1993 – Professor at University of Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne; Director of the Slavic History Center; President of French Associations of Ukrainian Studies  

Member of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences.

Holds an Honorary Doctorate from Wroclaw, Warsaw and Jagiellonian Universities 


Vilnius University and Polish Schools in the Russian Empire (1803–1832), 2 vol., published in 1977. The thesis was published in Polish in 1991 and 2010,.
Nobles, Serfs and Inspectors: The Polish Nobility Between Tsarism and the Ukrainian Masses (1831–1863), published in 1984. In 1985, the book was published in Polish followed by publications in English and Ukrainian in 1987 and 1996 respectively.  

A Fight for Land in Ukraine. 1863–1914. Poles in socio-ethnic clashes, published in Polish in 1993 and Ukrainian in 1998.

The Russian Government and Polish Nobility in Ukraine. 1793–1830, published in Ukrainian in 2003 and 2007.  

The Gordian Knot of the Russian Empire. The Government, the Nobles and the People in Right-Bank Ukraine (1793–1914), published in Russian in 2011.

Articles on the historical myths of Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania.

Related publications:

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